By Nick Simonson
Upland numbers and hunter success generally reflected what was predicted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F) in its summer surveys. With the season wrapping up this weekend only the hardiest upland hunters will be in the field pursuing pheasants, grouse and partridge one last time, as wardens, officials and avid hunters reported lower opportunities – and some areas of surprising success – throughout the state’s primary upland range in the 2017 season.
Hard hit by the drought, the southwestern corner of the state, including prime annual destinations for resident and non-resident hunters such as Dickinson, Mott and Hettinger, saw a significant decline in both pheasants and visiting sportsmen in comparison to previous years.
“We had people who were booked for their annual seven-day trip that were canceling after day two,” related Bowman District Game Warden Arthur Cox, “there were pockets of birds, but they were all older ones,” he concluded.
Cox added that sharptailed grouse hunters found some success, but it was early in the season, and results were still below average as upland sportsmen’s numbers in his district tailed off drastically a couple weeks after pheasant opener.
Around Dickinson, Pheasants Forever State Coordinator Rachel Bush talked of a season that required a good deal of work to put birds in the air.
“In the areas that I hunted regularly from Dickinson to Belfield, we saw fewer birds, shot fewer birds, and flushed fewer birds, though that was mostly on public land and PLOTS,” she explained, “people reported having to walk a lot farther this year to find pheasants; they’re here, you just had to put more miles on,” she finished.
In the area around Williston, District Game Warden Keenan Snyder’s upland observations echoed the pre-season reports by the NDG&F, with lower numbers, mature birds and a good hatch that seemed to fade into the dust of the summer’s dry conditions.
“We had a great first hatch, they just didn’t make it with the drought and having nothing to eat,” Snyder said.
In south central North Dakota, District Game Warden Courtney Sprenger of Elgin reported a mixed bag, with areas of habitat with water sources along late-standing corn and sunflowers providing the best bet for upland success.
“There were places that were decent, but it was pretty clear that the numbers were down,” Sprenger stated, “some guys were able to find birds with a good dog in good habitat, while other guys really struggled throughout the season,” she concluded.
District Game Warden Gregory Hastings out of Jamestown also tied hunter success to habitat, despite lower pheasant numbers in his area.
“It wasn’t like everywhere you went there were birds, but there was success,” Hastings recapped, “around Jamestown hunters could find some birds, but it was not as good as in years past when there was all that CRP,” he added.
According to Hastings, harvest rates generally increased as hunters traveled south and east of Jamestown. The key remained finding grassy areas, but a noted decline in CRP made finding suitable hunting difficult in and near his district.
“If there’s habitat there are birds, and there’s a lot of areas where there aren’t birds,” Hastings concluded.
Avid uplander and conservationist Dick Monson of Valley City reported good outings in southern Barnes and Ransom counties, by targeting less-pressured and habitat-rich areas such as WPAs with solid stands of cattails and thicker cover.
“I thought it was pretty good considering the conditions, I didn’t get out as often as I wanted to, but I was surprised at the number of birds; I’ve bagged thirty pheasants on the year and half a dozen grouse,” Monson said headed into the final weekend, “what I didn’t see were a lot of hunters, I’m guessing a lot of guys saw the forecast this year and said ‘the heck with it,’” he added.
R.J. Gross, Upland Game Biologist also suggested the southeastern corner of the state fared better than the rest of the N.D. pheasant range, and offered a few other bright spots where pheasant hunts exceeded expectations.
“On the south shore of Lake Sakakawea it seemed like there were better pheasant numbers, especially on public land; they had some added moisture, so that helped,” he offered, adding that the stretch around Beulah and Hazen produced well for pheasant hunters, while Foster and Wells county kicked out early – and by Gross’ account, unexpected – success for sharptailed grouse hunters in September. On the other side of the coin, reports to Gross’ office from hunters in the southwest corner of the state alleged much worse numbers than what was reported.
“I know birds were down, but the hunters in the southwest let me know that it was down by more than 60 percent – based on their estimates,” he said with a chuckle.
Recalling the previous winter conditions which impacted mortality rates, Gross hoped for limited further cold snaps like the one the region has recently experienced, and snowfall staying at a minimal level to help with winter survival, especially in light of the lack of quality thermal habitat on the landscape.
“I’m still concerned about moisture,” Gross said when looking ahead to spring, “a little snow is good, we’ll need a spring green up and a wet April and early May will be required for a good nesting season,” he related, adding that more habitat would help.
“Our PLOTS section has all kinds of programs for landowners, including a new one focusing on buffers around streams, along with tree plantings,” he concluded, with interested landowners seeking conservation options for their acres able to contact the NDG&F Private Lands Section at 701-328-6371 for more information.
The upland seasons for pheasants, grouse and partridge conclude Jan. 7. The tentative 2018 season opener for grouse and partridge is Sept. 8, and for pheasants, Oct. 6.
(Featured Photo: Upland hunters found a challenging season in 2017, as predicted by NDG&F brood surveys. Simonson Photo)